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Up in Smoke

The ban's arrival, from a Catbird's seat

In a little over one hour, Houston's indoor smoking ban goes into effect. As a nonsmoker who spends a truly astonishing amount of time in bars and needs only two hands to count the packs of cigarettes he's smoked, I feel it's my duty to spend this final hour chain-smoking in an appropriate locale — nowhere challenging, new or even all that interesting.

It's time for the proverbial Old Shoe. What bar comes to mind when I think about thick plumes of smoke and poor lung health? Catbird's (1336 Westheimer) always leaves you smelling of smoke, even if no one in the bar is smoking. People will be licking the nicotine off the walls here long after the next M.D. elected President of the United States bans smoking across the board.

I muscle up to the end of the bar, order some bourbon and light my first smoke. It's just after 11 p.m. All around, folks are frantically dragging at their own cigarettes; some cough conspicuously. While I won't exactly miss the nasal congestion or tax on my wardrobe, I'll fondly remember the time when it was possible to walk into a smoke-filled public room. I've never been able to subscribe to the vice, but I relish its contribution to the ambience.

Surely others feel this way, right? "Don't legislate my behavior" arguments and "To hell with City Hall/City Council/Bill White/The Man" groaning aside, has anyone considered what Houston nightspots might lose when that smoky texture no longer clings to their walls?

Jeff, one of Catbird's bartenders tonight, came to Houston via Oklahoma, like me.

"You a smoker?"

"Yeah," he says, "but I'll be trying to quit soon."

"But you spend a lot of time in bars, right?"

"I quit drinking a while back, so not really."

"All right," I regroup. "Hypothetically: If you were still spending a lot of time in bars, how would the lack of smoke affect your overall experience in a bar?"

"I never did spend much time in bars, actually. I just drank at home. You go out, a few shots is worth a bottle. It's cheaper."

Right on. Aside from our superior logic and backwoods charm, we Oklahoma boys know how to save a buck. You call drinking at home a problem; we call it wise fiscal planning.

I hear a buzzing and look down to see my phone vibrating on the bar. I answer.

"Hey," says my caller, "Where are you?"

"At Catbird's, chain-smoking."

Silence.

"The ban goes into effect at midnight."

"Oh, right," she says. "House party in Spring Branch. We thought you might be interested."

"I'm working, and this is bar No. 2. Right now, Spring Branch may as well be Amarillo."

"I'll drive."

Say no more. Back to work.

Erika, another Catbird's bartender, stands nearby surveying the situation. I ask her the same set of questions Jeff got. She also wants to quit smoking soon, but unlike Jeff, still spends ample down time in bars.

"It'll be sort of funny to watch people," she says. "The nervous twitch, you know? Everyone is used to reaching for their smokes — they'll realize halfway they can't do it."

"So you think it'll make for a more tense environment?"

"Definitely."

"Tension and booze don't mix. You think that need for an energy release will sublimate itself in random, violent ­outbursts?"

"I sure hope so," Erika smirks.

I've got four cigarettes left. My lips are dryer than usual. My voice has slipped into a lower register. My right hand is damp from brushing against my glass, so I roll the edge of it through the ashes that have missed the tray and look at them.

I'd hoped for a finite end to the night, an official last call for smoking, but I leave Catbird's at 12:30, stuffed into the backseat of a northbound Mini Cooper, long before the smoke cleared. People are still puffing away, and the pre-midnight anticipation has dissipated. What at first seemed a cross between the eves of Christmas and New Year's has turned into another night at the bar, except that everyone's waiting for someone to pull the ashtrays and begin the mass exodus to the patio.

Is this squawking over the ban really all angst, rhetoric and rebellion, or just the simple tragedy that tomorrow night, nobody's favorite bar will look the same without that familiar haze? It may not be healthy to concern myself with these sorts of aesthetics, but hey, it's a habit.

 
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